Sunday, 31 July 2005

Ten Hallam Poets

Ten Hallam Poets is an anthology whose no-nonsense title says it all. There are in fact ten poets here, and they are each, in their own way, products (that gross word) of the writing programmes (MA and PhD) at Sheffield Hallam University. The introduction is by Sean O'Brien, one of the best-known poet-critics currently writing in the UK.

As is usual with such anthologies (and I am no stranger here myself) a series of market-savvy blurbs adorns the back cover, culminating in the statement by Don Paterson (a major UK poet) that this collection "represents one of the most astonishing constellations of poetic talent to have emerged in the last ten years" - which begs the question, where are all the other "astonishing constellations" if this is only one of them?

Such praise does a disservice, perhaps, since the language with which we are able to recommend good poetry is becoming increasingly inflated to the point where soon a "new dazzling voice", "that rare good thing: the real thing" or "fizzy genius" won't even be able to buy you a loaf of bread.

Helen Dunmore says the anthology "deserves the widest possible readership" which in fact is a sort of poetic truism. Most poetry - indeed any poetry these days, especially in England - deserves a readership, and I am the first to wish to imagine a possible future world where that was the widest; given the Dan Brown Hypocentre we live in, it is more likely this attractive, small book will reach an actual readership of several hundred, or thousand. This may not be wide, but it could be deep readership, which might be almost as good.

This leads to the question of creative writing "programmes". I have recently been on the MA at UEA, one of the better in the world in terms of reputation, so am not about to throw stones here. This book is worth the price simply for O'Brien's Introduction, which should, once and for all, put to rest the silly notion, widely assumed (though rarely considered) in British literary circles, that such creative writing degrees are for the birds. Roughly speaking, O'Brien reminds us that while perhaps talent, let alone genius, cannot be taught (though Plato would have said it could surely be teased out of even the lowliest boy) it can certainly be harnessed, trained and guided by an attention to craft. The Hallam programme is one of the better ones in the UK (some would say the best of course).

The ten poets selected here are good, well-read, and what's more, they do deserve to be read. Their names are: Don Barnard, Anne Stewart, Tim Turnbull, Tracey O'Rourke, James Sheard, Gabeba Baderoon, Andrea Dow, Tony Williams, Shelley Roche and Frances Leviston. They have been selected by the editors: Steven Earnshaw, E.A. Markham and O'Brien from a presumably much wider pool, so we must assume this is Hallam's cream of the crop. I confess to thinking that about 70% of the poetry presented here is as good as - but only as good as - what could be located at any excellent department of creative writing, anywhere in the USA, Canada, or UK, at the current time - that is, rather than this book being an astonishing constellation, what is astonishing is how adequate and serious and prepared almost all graduate students writing poetry in such contexts now are - certainly, such a book could easily be prepared by UEA (and should be!) with equal results.

That being said, two or three poets out of the ten stand out with such distinction as to be in fact stars in the Paterson sense. I will briefly observe two of these.

The first is Tim Turnbull, born in 1960. His writing is witty, risk-taking, and able to play with form at ease, while never abandoning his own street-wise voice. His "Chainsaw" poem, which takes the piss out of Simon Armitage's recent poem on the same theme, is a sort of contemporary version of the kind of thing that little Pope did so well - taking down other poets with only the literate weapons of words to hand.

Turnbull is very good when he's at his best, but, like many current younger (and not so young) British poets, has mistaken attitude, humour, bravery, and insouciance for top-notch achievement - as if poets like Todd Colby in the USA had never existed.

What I am saying about Turnbull is, he is very good, and will become a force to be reckoned with - especially if he avoids assuming every pop culture reference or vernacular pose he adopts is original or an expressway to Frank O'Hara Central.

The very best poet in this anthology is Frances Leviston who was born in 1982. She is without a doubt - and on the basis of the eight poems included here - in pole position to be considered the major poet of her emergent generation. Her command and vision, at such a young age, makes her a sort of Armitage or Duffy in waiting.

It is good to read her debut will soon be with Picador (Paterson's press) - and no doubt the word "astonishing" mainly relates to her being in the constellation, for she is that fine. It was likely an editorial mistake to lead with her work, since the book can never quite recover from the the reader's desire to simply keep flipping back to pages 1-10. "Losses" is as good a poem as has been written in the 21st century by someone working within the British mainstream tradition.

For the fact that Turnbull and Leviston are here, this anthology has perennial value. James Sheard and Anne Stewart, and a clutch of poems by the other contributors, are also note-worthy.

Okay - so maybe not astonishing, but, remarkable. Time to welcome ten new poets in to the unfirm firmament where writing wheels, burns and often blazes out unseen.

Friday, 29 July 2005

Poem by David Hill

Dressed for success

No, no. Germanic pop, not Anglo rock.
Not Rolling Stones, not Velvet Underground,
But Amsterdam's and Stockholm's ample stock
Of Dancing Queens; the Berlin Wall of sound;

Camp groups like Ace of Base – remember them?
Army of Lovers – how could one forget?
Or Two Unlimited, or Boney M,
Or Falco, Modern Talking, or Roxette;

And, to pronounce those broken English names,
With turquoise eyes, a spangly lipsticked kiss:
Tall Eastern girls. Mad glamour. Freedom games.
Forget the greasy earnest rockers' claims:
It's this that killed off Communism. This.

by David Hill

Wednesday, 27 July 2005

Desire Doom & Vice

No, this is the title of a new anthology of Canadian prose and poetry, not the current state of life in London. The editor is that curious creature, the multi-talented peacock-provocateur, Nathaniel G. Moore, who has been a force in fusing poetry and performative entertainment for some time now, mainly in Ontario, in a manner altogether his own.

I am not sure I agree with all his methods or fin-de-siecle sequins, but his writing is sometimes quite good, and his energy to be admired, if not siphoned off.

Moore's new book, Desire Doom & Vice: A Canadian Collection, from Wingate Press, is that doomed hybrid (see my own In The Criminal's Cabinet), a book of both prose and poetry. I suspect the prose (although by many good contemporary practitioners, such as Catherine Kidd, Corey Frost and George Murray) is mainly there to underwrite the poetry, and help it sell. I am not sure this works. Usually, coupling prose and poetry is like re-enacting the final tussling gasps of the life guard and the drowner; prose that finds itself onboard a poetry book often ends up like the good captain, down with the ship.

However, this is a sexy-looking vessel, with a superb cover, a quintessential Hal Niedzviecki Introduction (the kind he wrote for Short Fuse, which, like an expert legal mind, says everything but nothing about the actual book, in gnomic, brilliant ways) that is maybe the best piece of writing in the book, except for the editor's own bizarre note that seems to be sincere, funny and certifiable at once, and not entirely on topic. One concern - the paper is not up to the quality of the text, and the typography is very wonky in places, as is the font. One hungers for Andy Brown to design every book in the world. Fortunately, they have included work by him instead.

The contributors are (as the saying goes) a veritable who's who from a certain kind of Canadian poetry publication these days (think Matrix): those alternative, indie, hipster types who nonetheless have MAs and impressive publishing credits, and live with parrots; reading the biographical notes one is reminded that, in North America, at the moment, to be a poet is still nearly as "cool" and associated with one aspect of "youth culture" as to be in a band, or run a tattoo parlour. This is not the case in the UK, which, on the one hand, drools over Montreal acts like Rufus Wainwright, but fails to take any notice of the equivalently talented literary figures from MTL. In the UK, poets who are too showy are suspects, and likely to be terminated with Scotland Yard efficiency. Mr. Moore would be too camp and Wildean to survive in an environment that only allows hothouse flowers to bloom if they have Hugh Grant accents and went to Oxbridge. I digress.

One of my poems in this book has a very odd typo in it that adds a few words not intended to be there (by me at least). I won't mention which poem, but if you want to write in with your guess, please feel free to try and earn a fabled Marvel no-prize. In a troubling way, this improves the poem, even as it detracts. I am glad it happened.

As to the contributors, the list is impressive, and includes: Di Brandt, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Jennifer LoveGrove, L.E. Vollick, Paul Vermeersch, Anne Simpson and John Stiles. Simpson seems to be odd woman out here, as her work is far more polite and "worthy" (usually) than that of many of the daringly louche divas of the demi-monde she is to be found among - though this is not to cast aspersions, simply to note disparities in style and intent.

This book is the little sister of the latest Gargoyle which I mentioned a fortnight or so ago, which features many equivalently thrilling and oddball American fringe writers. In the UK, where there is more concern with propriety, most poets are too cautious with their careers, and their reps, to dare to write such loose, crass, funny, troubling and blunt stuff as can be found in this book. In some ways then, a corrective, if one's course seeks to deviate.

Tuesday, 26 July 2005

Back From Japan

I am just back from Japan: Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and a small volcanic island in the south.

Monday, 11 July 2005

Gargoyle 50 Is Here

Richard Peabody is a phenomenon, as you know (or don't). Many don't, and the ones who do laugh at them, for he is one of the vital forces in contemporary indie American poetry and (small press) publishing. And a damn fine poet in his own right. Check out the link to his activities, where all good links appear here at the T. S. Review.

I am proud to be in the latest bumper-crop issue, the swaggering Gargoyle number 50. From the gorgeous cover (by Colin Winterbottom, pictured above) onwards, it spoils the reader with too much of a good if strange thing.

Gargoyle is the place in American writing where the marginal caresses the mainstream and vice versa, with the emphasis on vice. It is always beyond edgy, subversive, iconoclastic, weird, and every other one of those blurb words. It makes words like hip, cool, alternative seem redundant. Here are only some of the writers in 50:

A newly discovered unpublished Kathy Acker story, Magdalena Alagna, Buzz Alexander, Eric Anderson, Nin Andrews, Lauren Mclean Ayer, Jim Barnes, Grace Bauer, Jill Beauchesne, Marie-Claire Blais, Gary Kate Braverman, Randy Sue Coburn, Paula Coomer, Lucy Corin, J. P. Dancing Bear, Jim Daniels, Barbara DeCesare, Lucinda Dhavan, Trevor Dodge, John Dufresne, Denise Duhamel, Thomas Glynn, Elizabeth Hand, Michael Hardin, David Hernandez, Anna Maria Hong, Dave Housley, Sonja James, Christine Japely, Pagan Kennedy, Judith Kerman, John King, Patrick Lawlor, Adrienne Lewis, Melvin E. Lewis, M. L. Liebler, Molly McQuade, Erika Meitner, Sharon Mesmer, Rick Moody, Eileen Myles, Susan Neville, Dawn Newton, Hal Niedzviecki, Naomi Shihab Nye, Lance Olsen, David Petersen, Elizabeth Rees, Rusty Russell, Miriam Sagan, Kevin Sampsell, Tamara Kaye Sellman, Martha Silano, Mary Slowik, Julianna Spallholz, Kara Stambach, Sampson Starkweather, Terry Stokes, John Surowiecki, Eileen Tabios, David Trinidad, D. Harlan Wilson,Kathi Wolfe, Donna Vitucci, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Fredrick Zydek.

Reading at Ledbury 2005

Dr. Charles Bennett is a poet as well as being the Festival Director for The Ledbury Festival. Hats off to him. I'd heard of Ledbury of course - all poetry lovers have - but never been. This weekend I read there. I confess to being very impressed. Other festivals might be bigger, but none, for poets, is better. The energy, enthusiasm, optimism and professionalism of the organizers and volunteers was exceptional; the venues first-rate; the sound equipment and technician world-class - and the village itself lovely.

Best of all, the quality of the poets they bring in; on the two days I was there, there was, among many others: John Burnside, Simon Armitage, Ruth Padel, Kate Clanchy, Colette Bryce, and so on. It also helped that the skies were very blue, and it was a Grecian 30 Celsius; fortunately, the village offers good ice cream and lemonade. It was good to sit near the church under a tree. It made the terror of the 7th seem, for a moment, far away; perhaps a lazy thing, but also a needful one.

My reading, with Pireeni (see blog below) went very well, although it was early. We read at Burgage Hall, which is like a one-room schoolhouse or small church, on a cobbled lane. It seats maybe 100 or so when full, but we had about 25-30 people in the audience - pretty good for 10:15 (!) on a Saturday morning. Better still, they were attentive, sensitive, and ready to laugh and respond - basically, the kind of audience poets dream on.

Pireeni's work was good - political, sensual, performative. I was pleased with mine. I read mainly from the Open Field anthology edited by Sina Queyras, and my two latest collections, as well as six poems written for the MA at UEA.

Charles - who is a witty and warm emcee - called me back for an encore, as I only read for about 25 minutes in my first half, and asked me to read "Berryman in Paris" from my most recent collection, Rue du Regard. A surprising choice (a poet's choice certainly) and I felt glad to be asked, as I don't usually think to read that one.

There were many highlights of the week-end, but perhaps the most enjoyable, apart from my fellow poet's readings (especially Armitage's and Padel's) was the dinner we had on Saturday night, which included the poets mentioned above (sans Charles, alas), as well as Maurice Riordan and others.

We ate outside at the world's slowest restaurant - ordering at 8, we were served at 10. This led to much hilarity and even Mongolian songs were sung.

I was especially chuffed when John Burnside - one of the best poets now writing I think - bought me a double-whiskey and a cigar. It was good talking to him about the different kinds of poetry read in America and the UK. John is very open to Americans, like Jorie Graham and Charles Wright. His latest collection, The Good Neighbour, from Cape, reflects this without forsaking his own unique sensibility. The title poem is a truly fine poem.

Friday, 8 July 2005

...And We Must Go On

Life continues, amidst the dread. I am still reading tomorrow (Saturday) at the major poetry festival - Ledbury. It is an honour to be there, and the poet I am reading with sounds remarkable. I include her biographical note below.

Born in Sri Lanka and educated at Oxford, Pireeni Sundaralingam currently lives in San Francisco. She is co-editor of Writing the Lines of Our Hands, the first anthology of South Asian American poetry (forthcoming 2005) and Poetry Editor of the political journal LIP. Her own work has been featured in anthologies including The Oxford and Cambridge Anthology of Poetry (1992), So Luminous the Wildflowers: the Tebot Bach Anthology of Californian Poets (2003) and Risen from the East: the Poetry of the Non-Western World (2005) and is featured in the documentary film Veil of Silence. A PEN USA Rosenthal fellow, Pireeni was named as "one of America's emerging writers" by the literary journal Ploughshares in 2004 and her poetry is due to be featured in the International Museum of Women.

The poems I am reading will be a mix of the political and the less so. The timing makes me unsure about exactly what tone to strike. Ledbury is somewhat sheltered from the ravages of the last day, being set in lovely countryside hours from London, and so to be too solemn might be just as inappropriate as to be cavalier.

I shall simply try to read the best poems, in 35 minutes, that I have so far written. While I may dip into my earliest book Budavox, I will likely concentrate on poems from Cafe Alibi, Rue du Regard, and my latest, fourth collection, still in manuscript (many of these new poems written under the tutelage, at UEA, of George Szirtes and Denise Riley).

Rightly, the reading I was supposed to be a part of, last night at The Museum of London, was quickly cancelled in light of the attacks. It is doubtful that will be rescheduled.

It is curious and unexpected, but London has become the centre of the world in about a week - first Live8, then the Olympic bid win, and now the bombs.

One wishes London could almost find some blessed anonymity for a while.

The Day After...

Over 49 reported fatalities. 700 injured. Tony Blair a sideshow.

Friday in London.

Eerily quiet, with curious mixed messages from the authorities: business as usual, stiff-upper-lip, but also, don't come to Central London unless you have to. This tug of will involves each of us deciding how far to walk, and when to return to using the Underground, and the busses. Many are walking in to work.

News of some hotels profiteering last night by tripling prices for rooms is one side of the human story, and the Hobbesian interpretation of things.

On the other side of the ledger, an extraordinary image of guardian angels in human form: the double-decker bus which exploded did so exactly outside the HQ of the British Medical Association. Within half a minute, many doctors had rushed out to the blast victims in the red wreckage. Each victim had at leat two doctors with them, working to keep them alive until the severely tested ambulance service could arrive. I find this very moving, and perhaps even more than a coincidence. It is also the reason why the death toll (so far) has been lower than expected, for that bus.

It will be difficult to forget July 7. We must move on.

note: graph from BBC online news

Thursday, 7 July 2005

London Bombs: 7/7

The thing we feared most has happened: Madrid-style, multiple terrorist attacks on the London Underground and bus routes in the heart of London, timed with surgical cruelty after London's Olympic win and the start of the G8 summit. It is an unsettling time, and there have been many casualties. So far, over 33 fatalities have been reported.

It is - weatherwise and ironically (as in New York in 2001) - a warm, sunny day now, with lovely blue skies. Tens of thousands of would-be commuters are slowly walking home early. With no underground system, some mainline services closed, and few buses in Zone 1, some will be walking for hours. The streets are eerily calm, punctuated by sirens.

The people of London, accustomed to such things, are brave and will endure, but this is a sad day for all who love London and live here.

Wednesday, 6 July 2005

London Olympics 2012

London, my adopted home-city, has won the right to hold the Olympic Games in 2012, which is good news.

I am rather sorry for Paris - my previous home. The French deserve something for opposing the Iraq war so vociferously. Then again, the French also voted down the EU constitution. I am from just outside Montreal, and so recall, as a kid, the 1976 Games we had. It was a great moment, but very expensive.

I suspect London's Games will be great. Hope Paris gets the chance in 2020 - 2016 will have to go to a continent other than Europe.

My guess is South Africa will get the games then. It'll be Africa's turn. In 2020, the candidates are likely to be Moscow, New York, Paris, Tokyo and perhaps a South American city. New York will likely win this one.

Tuesday, 5 July 2005

In The Criminal's Cabinet

I often wonder what's going on with the wide world of poetry - and how despite the best efforts of many hard-working poetry activists, editors and so on there is the same sort of apathy we associate with high school election speeches.

Basically: is there really a global poetry community that is aware of its constitutent members, and works hard to locate, cultivate, and support them and their works? Maybe not.

Take, for example - or Exhibit A, if you will - a recent (late 2004) global English-language Internet-driven anthology of mostly avant-garde or at least indie poetry and prose edited by myself and Val Stevenson (see Nthposition link to order): In The Criminal's Cabinet.

So, very few mainstream reviews, and not that many sales so far. But consider some of the poets included - and the fact that it represents very new poetry, all written between 2002-2004:

Robert Allen, Tammy Armstrong, Louise Bak, Charles Bernstein, bill bissett, Stephanie Bolster, Jason Camlot, Maxine Chernoff, Todd Colby, MTC Cronin, Jennifer K Dick, Isobel Dixon, Peter Finch, Brentley Frazer, Philip Fried, Ethan Gilsdorf, Giles Goodland, Daphne Gottlieb, Jen Hadfield, Steven Heighton, Kevin Higgins, Paul Hoover, Ranjit Hoskote, Jill Jones, Norman Jope, Jayne Fenton Keane, Roddy Lumsden, Alexis Lykiard, Valeria Melchioretto, Nessa O’Mahony, Richard Peabody, David Prater, Sina Queyras, Srikanth Reddy, Ali Riley, Peter Riley, Thaddeus Rutkowski, Rebecca Seiferle, Ron Silliman, Hal Sirowitz, Sean Street, Rodrigo Toscano, Alison Trower, Paul Vermeersch, John Hartley Williams, and Max Winter (among many others equally fine).

That's a pretty good list eh?

I think this anthology deserves better. I mean, the review in Verse was great, but, other than a few blog mentions, that's been about it. But perhaps it is the fate of small press ventures to generally be swatted away by market-place indifference.

Be that as it may, the book is waiting for those who want to support the grass-roots efforts of sites like Nthposition.

Ledbury Poetry Festival 1-10 July 2005

I am honoured to have been asked to read at the Ledbury Festival this year.

It really is one of the best (some would say) the best festivals of its kind, and the roster of poets who appear is impressive. This year the line-up features Alan Brownjohn (recently at our Oxfam event), Galway Kinnel, Penelope Shuttle, Tamar Yoseloff (to read for Oxfam in August) and Simon Armitage, among many others.

I'll be reading on Saturday, July 9, at Burgage Hall, from 10:15 am-11:30 am (tickets £6.50) with the Sri Lankan poet Pireeni Sundaralingam.

Hope to see you there.

Sunday, 3 July 2005

Live 8, Poetry and Enthusiasm

The Live 8 concert in Hyde Park was audible from my flat, but I watched it on TV. I'm not a big concert goer (though a music fan) and so was surprised by how inspiring it was. Many informed critics of the event (such as George Monbiot) had suggested it was frivolous, futile or worse, but it seemed an impressive consciousness-raising effort with very few harmful side-effects.

There's a natural mistrust of millionaire rock star celebrities in the media and in the outlying plains where the rest of us feed, but one thing was striking - as band after band, singer after after act, got up, did their one or two or three songs, and got off (like WWI fighters going over the top) - these people earn their keep. The professionalism of the entertainers was marvelous to behold.

There's a reason why U2, (Sir) Paul McCartney, Madonna, Sting, Robbie Williams and co. are loved by hundreds of millions: they make us feel good, if only briefly, with not much else than the sound of their voices, and the sway of their bodies. In this sense, the ten-hour concert (reputed to be the biggest global event in human history, which seems to leave out The Flood and the fall of Rome) was Dionysian pleasure at its best - a civic, even quasi-political event, yes, but saturated with the wilder enjoyments that only a form of poesis can offer. For our age, these stars are our poets.

Now, that may be sad for a number of reasons - not least of which is the fact that better poetry is written and published by those who are not rock acts - and there is also the argument that there are pleasures only acquired in silent contemplation, or small gatherings (such as I facilitate via Oxfam's readings) - but as it stands, the performers we have in our world, at this time, are of a golden age, and future generations will marvel that one stage held McCartney to Madonna.

For me, the highlights were often unexpected, even at times comic. Having Bill Gates intro Dido was one of the most absurd anti-climaxes in history: why not have the world's richest man intro the world's best band, U2, for instance, instead of a mediocre talent?

Michael Stipe of REM was the best frontman of the night, regardless of his church fete make-up, other than The Killer's Brandon Flowers, whose clean-cut All-American charisma, height and youth reminded me of a young Orson Welles. Forgive me for this, but Keane are a good band, and their lead singer sure can belt it out. It was also moving to see Pink Floyd reunited. And Madonna is a kind of FemmElvis of our age - she is the consummate performer.

What is it about the British media, however? The running commentary from a host of comedians and comperes was sarcastic, trivializing, and at times actually insulting - what's wrong with a little enthusiastic appreciation of a good time for a change?


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...